holocaust 1978

Primo Levi was a great writer and a good soul, but it is clear upon reading some of his later work, particularly columns published in La Stampa, that he had no concept of self-care. He learned how to survive by pushing and fighting and pushing and pushing, and he learned how to cope by engaging and advocating and intellectualizing and reliving, and he could never pause long enough to direct any compassion inward.   

For example, in 1978 he subjected himself to the entire eight-hour miniseries Holocaust in order to comment upon its accuracy as a public service. He had a much more positive assessment of the series than Elie Wiesel - only the insufficient dirtiness of the actors and extras playing concentration camp prisoners truly bugged him on an intellectual level - but in his newspaper column he claimed that he had to repress painful sensations in order to remain objective, and it sounds to me like he’s describing flashbacks. If I were the editor of La Stampa, I would have said “Listen, Primo, your comments on this series are obviously more valuable than those of the average citizen, but I cannot in good conscience make you to do this to yourself. Turn off the TV and take a bubble bath, for God’s sake!” 

20/20 hindsight. Today we know about the merciless decompensation of Levi’s last months, but in 1978 he must have presented the picture of psychiatric health: an Auschwitz survivor with the mettle to watch an eight-hour miniseries on the subject and present the public with a cool, measured commentary on its narrative strengths and weaknesses.